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If you are a Harvard undergraduate, the question in my title might not be top of mind. In the early anthropocene, when I was in college, many people went to university with the idea that they might find somebody to marry. Back then, where your future children might go to college was something engaged college couples would discuss.
If by some remote chance this thought has crossed your mind too, congratulations! Your children will be legacies. It may come as a surprise that the issue of legacy admissions could eventually impinge on you. Despite an overwhelming tendency for undergraduates to oppose preferential admissions for legacies, it seems that few have given the issue much consideration.
I find the case against legacies is far from clear. In fact — let me just say it — there’s a good argument for favoring legacy admissions if the question we’re asking is who we want to be supporting Harvard financially in the future. My answer is: you! You and your children, and maybe even your grandchildren.
Many people understand legacies to be only the children of wealthy and powerful alumni. They think legacy admissions policies privilege this demographic and negatively affect minorities and the needy. But it’s not so clear who legacies are. Is a legacy the child of any Harvard graduate, or only a wealthy one? Or does legacy status only matter if you’re the scion of several generations of Harvard graduates — Harvard blueblood, in other words? Does it include the daughters and granddaughters of our Black and Hispanic graduates, who are rather numerous and often quite wealthy?
Even if you define legacy as “wealthy graduate,” the question arises: just how wealthy?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the case that all Harvard graduates become rich and famous. Some become schoolteachers or cellists or aid workers in foreign countries, surviving on a pittance. Sometimes the children of the rich and famous aren’t as rich and famous as their parents. I’ve known a few cases of that happening in my 38 years at Harvard. Should their children then be branded with the infamous label of “legacy?” If the children of all Harvard graduates are legacies, surely it’s absurd to disadvantage them in the admissions process.
And does the university really want to abandon families that have served it for generations and maintain its traditions? Won’t that weaken the institution, as I’ve argued elsewhere? Isn’t it the case that one reason less advantaged people aspire to get into Harvard is to meet fellow students from influential families who might be able to help them get on in life? If the goal of our admissions policies should be to help disadvantaged students enter the ruling class, won’t it help such students if they can network with classmates who are already members of that class?
A few years back, the Harvard administration, filled with a sense of its own righteousness, decided to impose sanctions on members of single-sex final clubs. It knew perfectly well that members of such clubs had been a major source of endowment. With huge sums of funding now coming in from foreign nations like China, it is quite conceivable the University reckoned that they could get along fine with less generosity from Wall Street firms, which have historically recruited many private Ivy League club members.
Now that strategy is not looking so smart. So let’s raise the question again: Who should private universities turn to for support? Foreign donors, some of them silent partners of foreign governments, who are trying to buy access to research and exercise political influence? Large corporations that want Harvard to train their future employees? Or wealthy alumni — legacies themselves and the hopeful parents of legacies — who know and love the institution and want to show their loyalty?
If it is best for Harvard to be supported by its loyal alumni, shouldn’t that loyalty be reciprocal? As long as the children of alumni meet admission standards, why shouldn’t they be admitted preferentially? Why shouldn’t the loyalty and generosity of alumni and alumnae be rewarded?
James Hankins is a professor of History.
His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme. Read the companion to Hankins’ piece here.
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